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The World Series
on Culture
and Technology

Democratization of Technology, Who are the Experts?

Wiebe E. Bijker[1]

Technology is back on the political agenda. After the 1950s, when it figured as the instrument to rebuild Europe, and after the 1970s, when it appeared in nuclear disguise as a threat to democracy, technology now enters the stage in a much more ambiguous role. Partly it is recognized as a "motor of the economy" - both as a core element of the knowledge base of a country and as a factor in creating employment in production and in Research & Development. Some parts of society blame it for the main cause of pollution, and - when used to automate and rationalize production - as a cause of unemployment. And technology is not just back on the political agenda in the narrow sense of the word; as a policy instrument or in governmental strategy documents. It is back in politics "on the street." Technology creates controversies about, for example, waste management, power stations, railway tracks and airport extensions, or genetically engineered organisms, and these controversies engage large parts of the population. Clashes between such public groups, governmental agencies and professional politicians reverberate throughout society. One prominent issue that emerges with this renewed political prominence of techology is the issue of democracy and the question which role experts play in our modern "high-tech" culture. In this chapter I will question in a rather fundamental way the character of technology and its place in society, and the consequences of this new image of technology for the role of experts. I will argue that there are good reasons--based on empirical studies of technological innovation--to radically broaden the definition of experts.[2]

First I will briefly review the standard images of science and technology, because these inform most of the present discussions about technology, democracy and experts. Then I will show how these standard images are inadequate to understand the development of technology and the relations between technology and society. In the third section I will address the issue of large public technological controversies which now so often seem to question the legitimacy of democratic institutions and procedures in our modern democracies. The fourth section reviews particular theories of democracy which I find helpful in thinking about better ways to handly these large controversies. In the last section I conclude by addressing the question, who should be considered experts on issues of technology and democracy.

The standard images of technology and science

In the standard image of science, scientific knnowledge is objective, value-free, and found by specialists. Technology, similarly, is a rather autonomous force in society and technnology's working, in a similar vein, is an intrinsic property of the technical machines and processes.[3] The left column of table 1 (see next section) summarizes the standard image of technology.

Some of the implications of these standard images are positive and comforting. Thus, for example, does scientific knowledge appear as a prominent candidate for solving all kinds of problems. In the domain of political thought, this naturally leads to "technocracy"-like proposals. Also, it seems that technology is good in itself and independent of context. Of course it can be applied negatively, but then the users are to be blamed, not the technology. The standard images also leave us with some problems. For some problems, for example, we do not yet have the right scientific knowledge. Also an adequate application of knowledge is, in this view, a separate problem. The role of experts is problematic in a specific way: how can experts be recognized by non-experts, how can non-experts trust the mechanisms that are supposed to safeguard the quality of the experts, and finally how can experts communicate that esoteric knowledge to non-experts? In the realm of technology an additional problem is that new technologies may create new problems (which of course in due time will be solved by still newer technologies).

The solutions that are tried to solve these problems are well-known, up to the point of being trivial: more scientific and technological research, peer review, scientific expert advisory committees, and technology assessment. But it is equally clear that these "solutions" do not offer as complete a disappearance of problems as the standard image of technology suggests. In the next section I will present an alternative image of technology, with some implications for an analysis of technology and democracy.

The constructivist image of technnology

Since the 1980s, sociological and historical studies have developed a constructivist analysis of technology in contrast to the standard image of technology that was largely "technological determinist." The idea that technology is socially shaped, rather than an autonomously developing force in society or a primarily cognitive development, is not entirely new, but its present momentum and precise formulation are quite recent. Social shaping models stress that technology does not follow its own momentum nor a rational goal-directed problem-solving path but is instead shaped by social factors. (See table 1 for a summary of standard and constructivist images of technology.)

Table 1:   Standard and constructivist images of Technology.                  


Standard view of technology (and         Constructivist view of technology


society)                                 society)                             


clear distinctions between the           both domains are intertwined; what is


political and the technical domain       defined as a technical or as a       


                                         political problem will depend on the 


                                         particular context                   


difference between "real science" and    all science is value-laden and       


"trans-science"                          may--again depending on the          


                                         context--have implications for       


                                         regulation and policy; thus there is 


                                         no fundamental difference between    


                                         "real science" and "trans-science",  


                                         "mandated science", or               


                                         "policy-relevant science"            


social responsibility of scientists      development of science and technology


and technologists is a key issue         is a social process rather than a    


                                         chain of individual decisions;       


                                         political and ethical issues related 


                                         to science therefore cannot be


                                         to the question of social            


                                         responsibility of scientists and     




technology develops linearly, e.g.       technology development cannot be     


conception ->decision->operation         conceptualized as a process


                                         separate stages, let alone a linear


distinction between technology's         the social construction of technology


development and its effects              is a process that also continues into


                                         what is commonly called its


                                         stage"; the (social, economic,       


                                         ecological, cultural, ...) effects of


                                         technology are thus part of the      


                                         construction process and typically   


                                         have direct vice versa implications  


                                         for technology's shaping             


clear distinction between technology     technology does not have the         


development and control                  context-independent status that is   


                                         necessary to hope for a separation of


                                         its development and control; its     


                                         social construction and the          


                                         (political, democratic) control are  


                                         part of the same process             


clear distinction between technology     stimulation and regulation may be    


stimulation and regulation               distinguishable  goals, but need not 


                                         necessarily be implemented separately


technology determines society, not the   social shaping of technology and     


other way around                         technical building of society are two


                                         sides of the same coin               


social needs as well as social and       needs and costs of various kinds are 


environmental costs can be established   also socially constructed--depending 


unambiguously                            on the context, they are different


                                         different relevant social groups,    


                                         varying with perspective             


In the social construction of technology approach (SCOT)[4] "relevant social groups" are the starting point. Technical artifacts are described through the eyes of the members of relevant social groups. The interactions within and among relevant social groups can give different meanings to the same. Thus, for example, a nuclear reactor may exemplify to a group of union leaders an almost perfectly safe working environment compared to building sites or harbours with very small chances of on-the-job-accidents. To a group of international relations analysts, the reactor may, however, represent a threat through enhancing the possibilities of nuclear proliferation, while for the neighbouring village the chances for radioactive emissions and the (indirect) employment effects may strive for prominence. As a workplace, the technology is succeeding quite well; whereas as a source for international tension or as an environmental hazard, it may be evaluated quite differently. This demonstration of interpretative flexibility is a crucial step in arguing for the feasibility of any sociology of technology--it shows that neither an artifact's identity, nor its technical "success" or "failure", are intrinsic properties of the artifact but subject to social variables.

The next step is to describe how artifacts are indeed socially constructed, thus tracing the increasing (or sometimes decreasing) degrees of stability of that artifact. The concept of "technological frame" is proposed to explain the development of heterogeneous socio-technical ensembles, thus avoiding social reductionism.

A technological frame structures the interactions between the actors of a relevant social group. A key characteristic of the concept is that it is applicable to all relevant social groups--technicians and others alike.[5] It is built up when interaction "around" a technology starts and continues. Existing practice does guide future practice, though not completely deterministically. The concept of "technological frame" forms a hinge in the analysis of socio-technical ensembles: it sets the way in which technology influences interaction and thus shapes specific cultures, but it also explains how a new technology is constructed by a combination of enabling and constraining interactions within relevant social groups in a specific way.

This constructivist conception of technology is crucial for my discussion of democracy and technology. The argument involves two steps. First, I'll argue that a constructivist analysis, in some form, is a condition sine qua non for any politics of technology. This results in stressing the malleability of technology, the possibility for choice, the basic insight that things could have been otherwise. But technology is not only malleable and changeable--it can be obdurate, hard, and very fixed too. The second step, then, would be to analyze this obduracy of sociotechnical ensembles.

The constructivist perspective provides a rationale for a politics of technology. It does so by exemplifying the very possibility of a social analysis of technology. Demonstrating the interpretative flexibility of an artifact makes clear that the stabilization of an artifact is a social process, and hence subject to choices, interests, value judgements--in short, to politics. Without recognizing the interpretative flexibility of technology, one is bound to accept a technologically determinist view. A technological determinist view does not stimulate citizens' participation in processes of democratic control of technology, since it conveys an image of autonomy and the impossibility of intervention. Apart from having a role in the public debate about sociotechnical choices, to demonstrate the interpretative flexibility of sociotechnical ensembles is also crucial in a more analytical sense. For without such a perspective an analysis of technology and society is bound to reproduce the stabilized meanings of technical artifacts and will miss many opportunities for intervention. The interpretative flexibility of technology will often be not obvious, and needs to be demonstrated in a rigorous way to escape the rather trivial level of observation that technology is man-made, and subject to many societal influences. The constructivist argument is that the core of technology--that which constitutes its working--is socially constructed. This is a way to take up the challenge of Langdon Winner's observation that "artifacts have politics"--such a perspective seems necessary to overcome the standard view of technology and society, in which "blaming the hardware appears even more foolish than blaming the victims when it comes to judging conditions of public life".

Let me now turn to the second step in the argument. To argue for the malleability of technology does not imply that we forget the solidity and momentum of sociotechnical ensembles. Such negligence might result in an equally counter-productive cultural-political climate, because it invokes too optimistic an expectation which in turn may cause disillusions. A politics and a theory of sociotechnology have to meet similar requirements here--a balance between malleability and obduracy in the first case, and a balance between actor and structural perspectives in the second. Sociotechnical ensembles do not only have interpretative flexibility, they can also be fixed, and obdurate - and they will accordingly function in the societal power struggles over technology.

Elsewhere, I have distinguished two aspects of power--a micropolitics of power, in which technologies may be used as instruments to build up networks of influence, and a semiotic power structure, which results from these micropolitics and constrains and enables actors.[6] The semiotic power originates from the fixity of meanings, which is built-up during the formation of a technological frame as a result of the micropolitics of relevant social groups. The relevant social groups have, in building up the technological frame, invested so much into the key technology that this technology's meaning becomes fixed--it cannot be changed easily, and it forms part of an enduring network of practices, theories and social institutions. From this time on, it may indeed happen that, naively speaking, the technology "determines" social development. Such an "exemplary" sociotechnical ensemble is, at the same time, the result of micropolitical interaction processes and one of the elements of a semiotic power structure. A sociotechnical ensemble can also be an important boundary-creating instrument. Then it functions on the border between two relevant social groups, often especially in the hands of actors with a low inclusion in the respective technological frames.

For the low included actors such an artifact presents a "take it or leave it" choice--they have no chance of modifying the artifact when they "take" it, but life can go on quite well when they "leave" it. For the highly included actors, on the contrary, there is no life without the exemplary artifact, but there is a lot of life within it. The obduracy of artifacts as boundary objects for low included actors consists in this "take it or leave it" character. For such actors, there is no flexibility; there is no differentiated insight; there is only technology, determining life to some extent and allowing at best an "all or nothing" choice. This is the obduracy of technology which most people know best. This is the kind of obduracy that gives rise to techological determinism. For high included actors obduracy of technnological ensembles presents itself as the technology being all-pervasive, beyond questioning, and dominating thoughts and interactions.

Artifacts as boundary objects result in obduracy because they link different relevant social groups together into a semiotic power structure. Making the "take-it" choice with respect to such an artifact results in being included into such a semiotic power structure. This implies being subject to power relations that one would otherwise--in the case of a "leave it" choice--be immune to. Someone who buys a car, for example, is thereby included in the semiotic structure of automobiling: cars-roads-rules-jams-petrol prices-taxes. This will result in this automobilist exerting power, for example by using the car during rush hour and thereby contributing to a traffic jam, but will also make her subject to the exertion of power by others--the traffic jam again... Without a car however, jams and oil prices simply do not matter. Artifacts as exemplars result in obduracy because they constitute to an important degree the world in which one is living. This also implies inclusion in a semiotic power structure, but with different possibilities and effects. Many of the power interactions are now in terms of the exemplary artifact. Leaving the car standing is less likely an option, but changing one's driving hours or routes (to beat the jams), changing from gasoline to diesel or liquid gas (to beat the taxes), or changing to a smaller car (to reduce parking problems) are possibilities.

In a constructivist perspective on technology, sociotechnical ensembles have at least these two types of obduracy. It is with this framework in mind, that I turn now to the large public technological controversies and the ways in which technology is shaped, and vice versa shapes the actors and society, during these controversies.

Dealing with large technological controversies

Large public technological controversies such as over nuclear energy, biotechnology, waste management installations, or large infrastructural works (airports, railway tracks, highways, dikes) are an increasing problem in modern societies. Since the 1960's several mechanisms have been developed to avoid that large technical projects develop into big public controversies. How can we characterize such controversies?

It is possible to develop a typology of technological controversies, but there are strong limits to the usefulness of this approach. Rather, I want to stress the negotiated character of each controversy. Just as technology itself does not have intrinsic context-independent characteristics, so may a controversy take on quite different shapes under different circumstances. One possibility for such a typology would be to focus on the largeness of the controversy. Nuclear energy would rank as big, a local waste dump siting case would rank as small. But what if the actors in the later case succeed in linking their cause to national issues of pollution or waste management and economics? What if there is no longer a nation-wide concern about the nuclear proliferation problem or the hereditary and global effects of radiation hazards? These examples show that a controversy may be made into a big one or into a small one, depending on which strategies are deployed. A typology in terms of its character (economic, ecological, social, health-related) suffers the same weakness. As long as the pollution of Onondaga Lake (near Syracuse, NY) is defined as an ecological problem, there seems to be little chance of mobilizing people. But redefining it as a health problem would probably produce more involvement.[7] I would like to analyse controversies as shaped by the strategies of the various actors involved, and as potentially open to continuous reshaping.

Another form of ordering is based on the different models of participation. One relevant dimension is the "legal-political" or "litigation-mediation" one: the legal model, used primarily in the USA, and the political model, used in most European countries together embrace a variety of intermediate forms.[8] The adjudicatory style of decision making in the US is relatively open to the public - both individuals and organizations. Individual citizens have a formal right to complain and be heard, be it in administrative processes or in court, as specified in several "right-to-know" laws.[9] All administrative and judicial processes are carried out in open public view. The legal model in the US also implies a much larger tolerance for litigation that in the political model. "In the US, major science policy decisions are virtually certain to undergo challenge in court (...)" . This legal model has led to a rather adversarial culture, in which different parties consider themselves as explicit opposites of other groups and individuals. Thus, Jasanoff concludes "that the US administrative process seems to advance more through a series of formal offensives and counter offensives than through negotiation and compromise" . In the political model the access to government information is generally limited to representatives of organized and influential groups, such as labour unions, consumer organizations and large environmentalist groups. The flow of information is similarly restricted to a small circle of directly involved people. Courts are seldom used to influence technological controversies. Rather, such issues find their way into public debate through political parties. The "green parties" in various European countries exemplify this process - the energy and environmental issues formed the direct starting point for these parliamentary parties. Participatory models, then, can be characterized to the degree in which they build on an adversarial, legal discourse or on a political, representative discourse. These discursive spaces specify the language in which actors carry out their public business and have implications for who is allowed to participate in that language, who is allowed to come to the table, and how participants must rationalize and explain their decisions at the end of the day.

I will order the various participation models by using the dimension of standard-constructivist image of technology. Some forms of participation, such as expert advisory committees build strongly on the standard image, while other models (implicitly) draw o a more constructivist voew of science, technology and society. The resulting overview is presented in table 2.[10]

Table 2:   Forms of Participation in Large Public Technological         

Controversies, ordered from their drawing on standard to                

constructivist images of technology                                     

hearings                               all countries               

advisory commissions                   Germany, UK, USA,           

public inquiry                         Netherlands, UK, USA        

referenda                              Austria, Switzerland,       

                                       Denmark, USA                

negotiated rule making                 USA                         

consensus conference                   Denmark, Finland, France,   

                                       Netherlands, Sweden, UK,    


constructive technology assessment     Belgium, Denmark,           


planning cell                          Germany                     

citizens' jury                         USA                         

The standard<-->constructivist dimension has been used implicitly to order table 2, but it will be readily seen that it is not possible to adequately order the wide spectrum of participation forms on only one dimension. One other important dimension for evaluating forms of participation is the degree of democracy that they implement. This however is not as straightforward a question as it may seem. How to evaluate concrete forms of participation will depend on the theory of democracy one uses. As we have argued before, one of the pitfalls in discussing large public technological controversies is to assume context-independent concepts. This applies to "controversy" and "public" as much as to "democracy" and "participation." So, one of the central issues is to explicate the various criteria to evaluate the "degree of democracy" in different participatory models. I will turn to that question in the next section.

Degrees of democracy

Laird distinguishes two approaches to democratic theory - direct participation and pluralism. Pluralism, or "polyarchy of interest group liberalism", is the mainstream approach in, for example, American political theory. "Pluralism is a theory of democracy based on the actions of organized voluntary interests groups. Citizens are assumed to join and support groups to further their interests, and democratic governance is the free and successful functioning of these groups and their interaction with each other and with the government." Thus pluralists are primarily concerned with groups. The criterium for successful democracy is the well functioning of interests groups as such. The outcome, not the process, is the focus of a pluralist analysis of democracy. Interests are treated as exogenous inputs in the political process which will vary from one individual to the other, and the process of democratic participation can be considered as a form of, albeit sometimes complicated, interests bookkeeping. Direct participation "is premised on the notion that democratic governance includes the full participation of individuals as individuals in setting policy" . In direct participation, the crucial concern is thus the empowerment of individuals. This has direct implications for what counts as participation - it is not enough to be a party member and give money, but participation needs to be active and individual. In addition to the outcome, the educational and psychological learning effect is important for the direct participationist. A truly democratic participation in this view changes the outlook of the participants. Interests are thus not seen as fixed variables, but may be affected by the experience of participation.

From this review, Laird deduces criteria to evaluate a participation process in terms of its democratic character - see table 3.

Table 3:   Two Sets of Criteria to Evaluate the Degree of Democracy           


pluralism                                direct participation                 


number of groups                         number of individuals                


opportunity for learning                 improved understanding               


access to officials                      resources for understanding          


means of coercion                        delegation of authority              


Using this scheme, we would, for example, conclude that a process of democratic control of technology in which groups such as Greenpeace or the Environmental Defense Fund (in the U.S.A.) play an important role, receives a higher score in the pluralist model of democracy than in the direct participation model. Similarly, the participation mechanism of "negotiated rule making" receives a higher evaluation within the pluralism framework than in the direct participation one, while the mechanism of "Planungszelle" would score higher from a direct participation viewpoint because the random or semi-random selection of jurors provides a better level of input from the citizenry.

A constructivist conception of technology encompasses both the pluralist and direct participation models, since the core of the constructivist approach is the active social shaping of technology. The specific political form in which this shaping occurs may vary between technologies, with some being more strongly shaped within a pluralist political framework where specific groups strongly influence development whereas other technologies are shaped by direct participation of large sections of the citizensry. To a certain extent, the extremes of pluralist versus direct participation overlap, respectively, with the mission-directed versus market-pulled of a technology, though the population as a whole is always involved at some level. For example, the development of nuclear power plants was promoted through a pluralist model of conflicting groups. A few powerful groups in industry and government supported nuclear power whereas other groups, including some within government and industry, opposed it for a range of economic, political, and environmental reasons. Though the dominant political forces shaping this technology followed the pluralist model, development would still have been impossible without the acceptance in society of a favourable image of nuclear power. The groups against nuclear power were successfully able in some countries to change this image and then build upon the political strength of widespread opposition to alter nuclear development.

Another promising framework to order different forms of democracy has been developed by Barber . He criticizes the presently prevailing forms of liberal, representative democracy as "thin democracy" in which citizens are viewed as atoms of self-interest, contained by politics: "Legislatures and courts alike deploy penal sanctions and juridical incentives aimed at controlling behavior by manipulating--but not altering or transforming--hedonistic self-interest. People are not made to reformulate private interests in public terms but are encouraged to reformulate public goods in terms of private advantage" . In this thin democracy, "politics has become what politicians do; what citizens do (when they do anything) is vote for politicians" . Barber's alternative, "strong democracy", "resolves conflict in the absence of an independent ground through a participatory process of on-going, proximate self-legislation and the creation of a political community capable of transforming dependent private individuals into free citizens and partial and private interests into public goods" . Rather than searching for a timeless, independent foundation for democracy, strong democracy builds on active participation and the creation of public goals and criteria in common deliberation and action.

The analogy with the constructivist image of technology and science is evident. As strong democracy avoids the assumption of an independent foundational principle, constructivist science and technology studies do not recognize the existence of Nature as independent arbitrator in scientific and technical controversies. In the view of strong democracy, societal goals and criteria are created in interaction, just as in the constructivist view of technology machines' working is socially constructed in interaction among relevant social groups. Similarly is the constructivist's recognition of the importance of many relevant social groups a mirror-image of the strong democracy emphasis on community participation by more than the standard elitist political groups.

Conclusion: Who are the experts?

The most important conclusion is now that the common distinction between experts and laypeople has been eroded. This was done via two lines of argument. First, the constructivist analysis of technology and scientific knowledge showed that more social groups are involved in matters of science and technology, and that these groups accordingly have their own particular "expertise." Secondly, the analysis of democracy showed that it is possible to translate this observation of technological and scientific development into a political strategy for democracy. In other words, one need not be a naive idealist to argue for more public participation in large technological projects. Such participation is both possible and urgently needed to avoid large public technological controversies in particular, and to stop the further erosion of our already quite thin democracy in general.

So, who are the experts? Different relevant social groups have their specific kinds of expertise--we are all experts in specific ways. Note the "specificity" condition: I am not arguing that an average citizen is able to design a nuclear reactor or a river dike. But I am arguing that more is involved in designing large projects such nuclear power and water management than is described in the engineers' handbooks. And for those other aspects, others are experts and need to be involved. And they need to be involved in the whole design process in as early a stage as possible.


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TOP Last updated by Geke van Dijk, 2 januari 1996.